No New York Ranger has more goals over the past three seasons than Chris Kreider's 72. However, that doesn't mean that the Rangers' longest-tenured forward is safe heading into what would be his eighth season as a Blueshirt.
Given the Rangers' salary cap troubles, it's been speculated that the team may have to part with an expensive piece like Kreider to make room for young talent. The team only has slightly more than $1 million in cap space, and still must re-sign forward Brandon Lemieux and defenseman Tony DeAngelo, who are restricted free agents. Kreider, a free agent in one year, carries a $4.625 million cap hit.
From a financial perspective, it makes sense to trade Kreider. However, members of the Rangers' front office reiterated on Thursday that as of now, the expectation is that Kreider will remain a member of the Rangers for the 2019-20 season.
"I totally expect him to be in camp," Rangers president John Davidson said. "It's hard to make promises. Things change, but Chris is a valued member of the New York Rangers and I look forward to him having a great camp and a great run with us."
"We'll continue to talk to Chris and see what's next for him," general manager Jeff Gorton said. "But we'll start with training camp, get him going on the right path. Hopefully he's helping us win games, and then we'll figure it out."
The Rangers swung big this offseason, signing winger Artemi Panarin and trading for defenseman Jacob Trouba. Both players are elite-level talents, but they didn't come cheap: their combined cap hits exceed $19.6 million, or 24 percent of the Rangers' salary cap. That, combined with a budding crop of young talent in need of new contracts, might make it difficult to keep Kreider.
However, there are ways for the Rangers to keep Kreider around with a little creativity. First, let's plan on the Rangers re-signing Lemieux and DeAngelo for around $3 million combined. This will give the Rangers a full roster, but leave the club with -$1.98 million in cap space. The Rangers might also like to have top prospect Vitali Kravtsov start the season with the big club, which would continue to eat into that figure.
It won't be easy, but the Rangers could retain Kreider by moving two other players. Brendan Smith could be sent to the AHL, but someone else would have to be recalled to serve as an extra defenseman. The club could try to trade Vladislav Namestnikov, whose versatility is useful but may not be worth his $4 million salary. There have already been reports that Namestnikov could be on the trade block, too.
Although Namestnikov is younger and cheaper than Kreider, Gorton thinks that Kreider's leadership will benefit the young forwards on the team.
"[Kreider has] been there, he's done that," Gorton said. "He's a good player. He's obviously a top-six forward and he's somebody that, when he's producing, takes the edge off young players too. There's not so much pressure to produce if you have other guys leading the way. For a lot of reasons, Chris is an important player."
Kreider's importance both on and off the ice makes him integral for the Rangers to keep, at least for this year. By subtracting Namestnikov and Smith, the Rangers would have over $2.25 million in cap space while also retaining Kreider. The roster would then look something like this:
One thing's for sure: the best version of the Rangers' 2019 roster has Kreider on it. It won't be easy, but Davidson and Gorton should try their hardest to keep the longtime Ranger in tow, no matter what it takes.